Queerness, Mennonites and Bullying: Beyond Spirit Day and Wearing Purple

This week on Thursday, people around the world wore purple in response to a spate of suicides has raised the profile of bullying dramatically. Specifically, bullying of gay and lesbian adolescents and teens. Watching this video of Google employees got me thinking about my own experiences of bullying as I grew up.

For the first 8 years of my education, I attended New Danville Mennonite School, a small Mennonite elementary school in Lancaster county. Almost as early as I can remember during my time there, I was picked on.

It started on the bus ride to school, which included two bus trips. The first one went from my home to Penn Manor, the local public high school. Most of the other riders were going to public elementary or high schools. The second bus took us from Penn Manor to New Danville and so only had kids going to New Danville. It was on the second bus, of mostly Mennonites, where I faced regular bullying and harassment through my early grade school years.

Often one or two kids would egg each other on and so the tradition was passed down from brother to brother and cousin to cousin. Some of the names they called me still hurt enough that I won’t repeat them here. I remember the bus drivers one or two ineffective attempts to stop the harassment. But it was impossible for them to maintain any discipline while safely driving a bus full of kids over Lancaster’s winding hills.

Starting in fifth grade, the bullying became more physical. It seems I was a good way for boys coming into their adolescence to try out their new-found strength. I remember Todd* in particular because he was the popular boy in the class. It was as if he was experimenting to see how much pain he could inflict, where hitting me under the desk in class or kicking me in the back while we walked down the hall.

By sixth grade, a boy named Ted* became my most regular tormentor. I still remember the day I sat at my desk in a way that he didn’t like. "Why are you sitting that way?" he asked. "You are so gay." The fear and loathing that washed over me embedded that moment into my psyche far more deeply then any grammar, math or science I learned that entire year of school. Then there was the time in the hallway he managed to pick me up off the floor just by pushing really hard on my ears. But the words hurt the most.

There was no one way to get away from my identity as an outsider in such a small school. The stigma that surrounded me impacted the few friends I did have. I remember one day when I was locked out of the school. A girl who was a friend of from church, was sitting with her school friends inside. When they saw I needed the door opened for me, she started over to let me in, but the other girls began making fun of her for being friends with me. To her credit, she eventually came over and opened the door any way.

I never did find any coping behaviors that worked. I’ve since heard stories from close friends who early on learned to hide their academic abilities in order to survive. I was never clever enough to figure that one out. The closest I came to coping strategies was burying myself in books. Unfortunately, I also picked on my younger sister at home, replicating some of the patterns I experienced at school at home. It is thanks to my sister’s tremendous capacity for grace and forgiveness that we are good friends today. You can read her perspective on our relationship as children here.

It got better

For me things only really changed when I left that Mennonite community all together. My family moved from Lancaster, Pennsylvania to Goshen, Indiana. I spent my 8th grade year in a school with 300 kids in my grade. It was new and big, but once I adjusted, it was a huge relief. I remember two times I was picked on in the entire year. For the other 178 days, I blended into the crowd.

After the breathing space of 8th grade, I went to a Mennonite high school in Goshen that was a world apart from my experiences at New Danville. There were teachers who affirmed the gifts they saw in me. But most importantly, the bullying was gone.  I was still nerdy and geeky, but found other nerds and geeks to befriend. There were other people who always knew the answer in class and weren’t afraid to say it. It was through these relationships that my sense of call to peace and justice work emerged.

So what have Mennonites got to do with it?

In understanding my experience at New Danville, I can’t help but come back to the small, insular Mennonite community at that school. I was with more or less the same 20 or 30 kids from age 5 to age 13. Once I was established as the outsider, my role was cast. I had the occasional respite when I went to a program for gifted kids at a local public school (God bless you, Mrs. White), but I’m sure this didn’t help matters any with the kids I spent most of my days with. I also believe that the teachers were completely unequipped to deal with the recurring patterns of bullying. They would occasionally see individual incidents, but were completely ineffective in dealing with the overall sweep of the pattern.

Looking back, one of the things I notice is most of the kids who bullied me were from working class or farming backgrounds. Quite a few of them struggled with school work that I sailed through with ease.  I remember my mom telling me that they were trying to build themselves up by knocking me down. I’m sure she was right, but understanding why they did it never really helped.

I also don’t think that that the peace teachings I grew up with helped. As I remember, the focus was on “heaping burning coals,” which seemed to boil down to “grin and bear it.” There was no exploration of what it might mean to stand up for one’s self (or others) in a nonviolent way. This is one of the dangers of a peace divorced from justice, contrary to Psalm 85:10.  Unfortunately, I think there’s still a strong resistance to looking at structural justice issues as part of the gospel message in many Mennonite churches.

Twenty years later, Mennonites still have surprisingly little to say about bulling. A search on the topic turns up a short pamphlet on bullying from Mennonite Publishing Network , statistics in an MCC newsletter, a master level EMU course and articles from the Gay Mennonite League about this recent flurry of bullying related suicides. This is hardly the signs of a serious church-wide conversation. Will it take the suicide of a Mennonite child before we take this issue seriously?

Exceptional, unusual and Queer kids have the potential to bring incredible gifts to our church. They could stretch and grow our movement in tremendous ways. Some will struggle through and stay in the church against all odds. But most will leave and take their wild imaginations, rich faith expression and outside the box thinking with them.

Why we can’t confront bullying without confronting homophobia

I’m sure that some of you would like to imagine that we can separate homophobia and bullying. You believe you can challenge bullying while condemning "the homosexual lifestyle." But I for one, do not believe it.

I’ve described m experience as a straight, if bookish and nerdy, child. How much worse must it be for adolescents growing up gay in Mennonite elementary schools today? In my memories, much of my bullying was rooted in homophobia and its loathing of behavior outside traditional gender norms. The fear I felt when told I was gay or sissie cut me off from a whole part of myself. I learned to shun dolls, cooking, dancing, or worst of all, crying. While I’ve learned to cook, dance and play with dolls, I still find it nearly impossible to cry. Above all else, being a man meant full emotional control. Only anger was valid. This was battered into me at a deep, deep level. It will take decades to overcome these barriers if I ever do.

Unfortunately, in many Mennonite communities today, having a gay or lesbian son or daughter carries deep social stigma. Children soak up their parent’s attitudets with razor sharp clairty. They do not grasp the nuances of love the sinner and hate the sin. They do understand right and wrong and sin. And if they find a child who fits their image of fag or queer, they will do their best to give them their own little hell on earth: just punishment for the damned.

*Names changed

Update: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Peacemakers Academy, based in Goshen and founded by Mennonite pastor Steve Thomas. From my conversations with Steve, its clear that he’s serious about exploring nonviolent approaches for kids to problems of bullying.

Comments (17)

  1. JJ

    Wow, such a hard issue. Now I am trying to go back in my head, remembering the times when I was one or the other, bully or victim. And I grew up Mennonite as well, and that truly does seem to complicate everything terribly. I was never able to apply the principles from Sunday school well – in fact, my most vivid bullying memory was of a non-Mennonite being mean to some girls from my church, followed by me punching him in the face until he bled all over my jacket. I guess in the old days in Russia I would have joined the Selbstschutz!

    Seems like what we face in school is such a perfect microcosm of the issues re: non-violence that we continue to face throughout our lives. I didn’t have any firm answers then, and I don’t now, but it’s a discussion that is worth continuing.

    Reply
  2. TimN (Post author)

    JJ,

    Thanks for sharing your own experience with bullying. In the absence of any serious teaching on something besides passivity, I’d hesitate to condemn a response like yours. Do you have any reflections on how the situation resolved? How do you feel about your response looking back on it?

    One good Mennonite program for kids that looks at nonviolent self-defense skills is the Peacemakers Academy in Goshen. I forgot to mention them in my original article, but I’ve added a link to them in an update above.

    Reply
  3. DenverS

    Tim, Thanks for your honest personal story. Personal stories like this are always much more powerful then theoretical theological, abstract discussions. So I appreciate your honesty.

    As I kid, I think I figured out early on how fit in socially enough to avoid being the guy picked on. I probably identify with the girl from your church that let you in the door, and at times I’m sure I missed the opportunity to open up that door.

    I now have an adopted 12 year old. She has managed to climb to the top of social ladder, and my wife and I often try to steer her in direction of being a friend to the friendless. But that is such a counter-cultural idea. Your mom’s explanation that kids (or humans in general) put other down to make them feel better about themselves, echoes what I tell her, but, as you point out, falls short of comforting the person who is getting attacked.

    It’s not just a playground issue. Even in grown up world, I don’t think it’s much different. While it is no longer acceptable to physically assault someone to show that we are physically superior to them (except in a sporting arena), instead we still climb over people to get to the top, and put people down behind their backs to in some twisted way, feel better about ourselves, ignoring the log in our eye.

    I also appreciate the challenge you pose that you can’t separate homophobia with bullying.

    Blessings Tim as you use your experience to be a voice for the voiceless and to teach others to do the same.

    Reply
  4. AlanS

    I do have hope that it will get better in the Mennonite Church. Views can change, sometimes drastically and in a very short time. I know mine did.

    In Jr. High, I would have considered myself on the side of the bullys. I was not the most outspoken or violent or even the initiator of torment. But I was on their side and was part of the chorus that allowed for it to happen. If anything, my job was to help create the climate of hate through jokes, insults and other prodding. But then things changed. I was ridding with my father in the car to a neighboring town when he turned down the radio and said, “well, I need to talk to you about something.” I had recently done something that I had not yet been caught for so my mind first went to the idea that I was about to be punished. Then he said, “you may have noticed that your relative, Bill, is gay.” (Not his real name and I’m not saying how we’re related for his sake not mine) After being relieved that I wasn’t in trouble, I began to ponder the implications of knowing that I had a Gay relative who I was fairly close with. For me, it was an almost overnight change. Every joke and insult that I knew suddenly was no longer about some kid at school or some hypothetical person but they were instantly about Bill. I couldn’t engage in any of my hurtful actions without always seeing the face of someone I loved and respected. That knowledge has forever changed me. I still struggle with the courage to speak out for the oppressed, but I do know that a change of heart and of actions can happen. Sometimes very suddenly. And that is what gives me hope for the future.

    Reply
  5. SamuelVS

    Not all anti-bullying efforts can be found with a google search-just to offer some hope, the St. Louis Mennonite Peace Center is working on conflict transformation in local middle schools, using circle groups, and very much is focusing on bullying and other violent behavior as part of its work on peace building.
    Also, having no experience with Mennonite schools (other than College) and having grown up in a relatively large city, I still resonate with your story, because I experienced plenty of bullying there as well. For me at least, the larger more anonymous space didn’t particularly help-for me, what was sort of useful was changing schools, even to a similar school size and format which often gave me an opportunity to shift my social setting, which was more difficult from year to year in the same school.

    Reply
  6. TimN (Post author)

    DenverS and AlanS,

    I hadn’t really thought of this question from the perspective of a parent of a popular kid or bully (not necessarily the same thing). Alan, your story in particular offers hope that personal connections with LGBTQ folks can make a real difference in kid’s lives.

    SamuelVS,

    Thanks for sharing about the resource from the St. Louis Mennonite Peace Center. How would someone connect with this program if they were interested? If not a web site, is there a phone number?

    I agree that simply changing schools can make a big difference. I know that bullying still happened at the larger school that I was at. If I had been there longer, it might have been more of a problem for me as well.

    Reply
  7. Tim Baer

    As a child I was heavily bullied in middle-school, something that eventually led me to be placed at Hannah More Center School as well as homeschooled by the state.

    The problem with bullying is that it isn’t necessarily about violence or getting something from the victim. Rather, bullies thrive on picking on those who refuse to stand for themselves. They love taking advantage of whomever will let them. Going to parents or teachers or worsened the problem. Bullies hate those who need others to stick up for them.

    I eventually learned how to not be bullied by 11 year brats. I used my fists.

    Reply
  8. isaac

    Tim, thanks for sharing this story.

    Reply
  9. Brian Paff

    Thank you, Tim, for calling us to task. Check out this video posted by the bishop of Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. Let’s vow to end the silence and start speaking words of love, peace, and hope.

    Reply
  10. SamuelVS

    If you’re interested in working with the St. Louis Peace Center, check out the website at http://www.peacecenterstl.org/home. The director of mediation, Mary Helwig (3148634442)also works in the talking circles/school mediation/conflict resolution areas, which deals with bullying all the time, and she would be happy to talk to anyone who is thinking about how to institute problem solving in their schools, or with their children.

    Tim B-standing up for yourself certainly is one method of working against bullying, and I know that winning a fight can be a successful technique for changing social status, I commend you on your strength.

    I’d like to offer my own story-for me, going to authorities helped me to gain the assertiveness needed to stand up for myself, and an intervention between a teacher, my bully, and I really helped my situation.

    I don’t think bullying is a one size fits all issue, and while I agree that sometimes going to teachers can make the problem worse, I’d really strongly recommend that middle schoolers and elementary schoolers suffering from serious bullying go to the proper authorities, and to go as soon as the bullying starts, if they are having trouble addressing it by themselves.

    I say this not to disagree with your diagnosis of who bullies are (those who like power and tormenting those who can’t stand up for themselves) or how to stop them (prove you won’t play their game), but that there are more children in this world suffering in silence who could be taught skills to work against bullies if they went to competent adults, than there are kids going to teachers and thus making their own problems worse.

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  11. Darin

    Thanks for your transparency about your own journey in this area. It brings back difficult memories for me from middle school when I was bullied verbally and physically, and then responded in kind….I remember the sense of power, yet guilt, that I felt. I’m challenged to think how I can create a safe, respecting community with my Kindergarteners.

    Reply
  12. Ruth

    Thoroughly enjoyed this article and am grateful for the Menno churches who are involved in addressing the bullying issue

    Reply
  13. Lauren S.

    Thanks for this story. I think it resonates all too well with a large majority of us who were schooled in private Christian schools in Lancaster, PA. I was one who narrowly escaped most teasing and bullying but turned around and picked on other kids to make sure I stayed off the hit list. As an adult, I still carry heavy guilt for some of the things I did and said to my classmates. It is difficult to instill genuine compassion into your children and teach them to see beauty in all people, however different or misunderstood. I am encouraged that someone in the church has started this conversation. May we all continue to work towards a world full of true love and compassion for all people.

    Reply
  14. keith s.

    thanks for the story. i also went to a mennonite school in lancaster and had a similar experience. it still affects my life today. not just how i was picked on but how i turned it on others. living as christ did is not easy.

    Reply
  15. Karl S

    Tim, greetings and thanks for this posting on an important issue. I agree with you wholeheartedly except on one point.

    I am not ready to let go of the “coals of fire” model. That was the ticket for me in transforming my own experience of being on the receiving end of the bullying equation at my public high school.

    Being slammed into lockers and called a “f*****g f****t” countless times are not memories I recall joyfully. But seeing the “other” (bully) as a child of God and continuing to offer grace in the form of not biting back really did turn enemies around in a way that I still believe was God-led.

    Maybe it’s not the only or best answer, but I think we can find riches in this tradition.

    Peace,
    Karl

    Reply
  16. Laura Sybil

    I have spent most of my post-Mennonite school years trying to reconcile the gospel that was taught from the classroom lectern with the lesson caught from both students and teachers who went to school with me. I’ve asked the question many times: How can so many of us leave these schools with bruised self-esteems (if there is much self-esteem left at all) and battered psyches? I haven’t found the answer but I have to come several conclusions.

    1. I do think that the smaller school environment allows this to happen because it’s easier to pigeon-hole someone early on and then try to keep that person in his/her place for as long as you are together. When school, church, and family life are so intertwined, you find that you can’t break free wherever you are. I started in the Mennonite schools in 2nd grade which was probably the first strike against me; I was an outsider. The second strike was that I was shy. Finally, when I did start to come out of my shell and I tried to break into groups where I had interest and skill, I was shunned. Three strikes and I wasn’t out, but I did give up. My grades suffered and I became bitter. Why the teaching staff doesn’t make more of an effort to get to know all of the students, not just the louder, brighter, more popular students, this I don’t know.

    2. The students are kids, just like I was. They were dealing with the same adolescent hurts, hormones and hangups that I was. Looking back, I have a feeling many of them had no idea what they were doing to some of us. In fact, I once ended up in a Bible Study with one of the former protagonists. As I took my turn sharing my life story, which included years of trying to believe that I had self-worth, she shared that she had been obvlivious to how I felt. I do think that there is some truth to the adage that children who hurt others are trying to build themselves up. It doesn’t make it right but it does help to understand.

    3. The anger and bitterness that I carried around for years was just as bad as what these students had done to me. I needed to forgive. I have and sometimes it’s an act that I have to repeat, like when I run into someone who now acts as if we’re best friends. I also need to watch that I don’t treat others the way I was treated for so long. It’s been a lifelong journey.

    4. It’s okay to make some choices to protect myself. My family and my church were not exactly pleased when I chose NOT to attend one of the Mennonite colleges. It was a choice that needed to be made and which started me on the journey to healing. I found that others did like me and that I was talented. My grades improved dramatically because I felt like there was a reason to continue. I have also chosen to keep my phone number and address from my alma mater. I don’t need to be contacted by them; it just brings back raw memories. Related to this, I don’t attend any reunions. I am in touch with my best friend from high school and that is all I need from those days. And sometimes you just need to leave the Mennonite church, and a Mennonite area, to break out of a mold you didn’t want to be in.

    5. God doesn’t waste a hurt. Being on a healing journey from the hurts of my early educational years, I have found that God has given me a heart for people who are hurting. I find it very easy to befriend those who don’t fit in with the status quo. My college major was special education. I have been a sign language interpreter. My husband and I have been foster parents and adoptive parents. While the way I was treated was never right, it was part of the path I needed to take to become who I am now.

    6. As a parent, it is very important for me to teach my children to be loving and accepting of all people. It is a joy for me to see my children (who attend non-Mennonite, public schools) reaching out to all students, regardless of where they fit into the school’s pecking order. I’m thankful for a church youth group (also non-Mennonite) that has reinforced this within their circle of influence. Recently, the parent of a newer student pulled me aside to tell me how thankful she was for this youth group and for how it has accepted her daughter even though she is new to their group. They’ve been looking for a church and have found it. That is the way the people of God are to treat each other.

    I am thankful for my Mennonite heritage and still belong to an Anabaptist denomination. The Mennonite Church and its Anabaptist history have much to teach the world, but if following Jesus and His radical life of love, peace, and justice are not at the top of the list, then I am afraid for what will happen to the denomination. I may not always be young, but I always want to be Anabaptist and radical, not because someone told me to be, but because that’s who Jesus was and is.

    Reply
  17. Aaron Kreider

    I think there was a major increase in anti-LGBT bullying after I was in school. I was likely massively blind to the need for LGBT liberation at the time, but I don’t recall it being used to bully people around 1985-1990 (and I don’t recall “gay” being used regularly as a negative slur). We also didn’t have any students who were out at our public high school that I knew of. Now that more students are out, the anti-LGBT bullying has probably dramatically increased.

    Reply

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